There’s an old story told of a devout Christian who each morning would spend time in prayer and meditation in his bedroom – it was, in fact, a discipline of devotion that over time became an essential part of the man’s life as the prayers themselves became longer and more intense.
The only difficulty was that this man also owned a cat – and as cats are wont to do, as the man was praying, inevitably the cat would cozy up to him, rub its furry body all over him and purr so loud as to be very distracting! Now, if you’re a cat person, you know that you can’t simply shoo the cat away and expect it to take the hint; and this particular cat was really disrupting the man’s prayer time. So he came up with an interesting solution – he actually put a collar around the cat’s neck, and each morning when it came time for his prayer, he’d tie the cat to the bedpost! The cat didn’t seem to mind it, and it meant that the man could pray uninterrupted, so it worked very well.
Well, over the years the man’s daughter observed all this, and could see just how much this prayer time had meant to her father, so as she began to establish the routines and patterns of her life, she decided that she would do just as her father had done; and every morning, very dutifully she tied her cat to the bedpost and proceeded with her devotions – although, since the pace of her life was considerably faster than that of her father’s, she really didn’t give as much time to prayer as did he. Eventually the time came when the daughter had a son of her own, and as that son grew to adulthood, he was determined to preserve the religious tradition of his mother and grandfather. But his life became so hectic that somewhere along the line he found he really didn’t have enough time to for a daily period of devotion – but in order to carry on that hallowed family tradition, he still got up every morning, and while he was getting dressed …he would tie his cat to the bedpost!
Well, friends, we’ve all come together here in this place on a beautiful and hot summer Sunday morning, so let me ask a question: did we come to worship God today? Or could it be said that, perhaps, our being here today is kind of like tying the cat to the bedpost?
It might sound like a harsh question, but it’s a valid one – after all, ritual does have a way of replacing the reality that it was meant to convey; the act of worship, unless we’re very careful, can easily become something done pretty much “by the numbers;” that is, going through the motions of prayer and liturgy without it having any real meaning at all.
To put a finer point on it, for a lot of people the habit of coming to worship has long since taken precedence over the actual experience of worship. In other words, it becomes all about the routine! You know; you come to church, you sit in your regular pew, you see the people you always see, you get a dose of the “same old same old” from the preacher, you watch the clock a little closer than you really should, and then you get up to go – often without ever truly connecting with anything or anyone, human or divine! What’s happened, you see, is that where “the act and attitude of worship” is concerned, you’ve tied your cat to the bedpost just like you always do – but little more!
Well, friends, the express purpose of our psalm this morning is to warn us against that lack of a worshipful spirit! Psalm 95 is actually one of several Psalms meant to be sung as the people went up to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. It’s an invitation to worship, a call for all of God’s people to “come,” “sing,” and “shout” with a “joyful noise,” extolling the glories of God in worship. The message of every one of the 11 verses of this Psalm is that worship is never to be something taken lightly or done half-heartedly, but ought to involve our whole selves. That’s why from the very beginnings of our faith these words have traditionally been used as a “call to worship” – but not merely “get up Sunday morning and go to church like we always do” worship; but true, authentic worship with active and whole-hearted participation, filled with a spirit of joy, awe, and utter humility.
And why worship? Why sing to the Lord? What moves us to bow down and kneel before him? The psalmist tells us this as well, simply and profoundly – it’s because “he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
The people of ancient Israel did not consider worship to be merely a matter of routine; which is interesting because their worship was filled with layers of rich tradition and ritual that is carried on in Judaism to this very day. In fact, the very act of worship, with all its ritual, was considered to be as important and essential a part of life as breathing itself; to offer up praise and thanksgiving for the blessings of life was the good and proper thing to do; moreover, it was considered part of one’s very responsibility to praise God; as another psalm says it, to “ascribe the glory due his name.” (96:8)
This gets borne out if you look at the original Hebrew of this passage: the word that’s used for worship is shachah, which means to fall down in the face of something greater than oneself; even our word for this, worship, is a shortened version of the longer word, worth-ship, which was to “ascribe ultimate worth” to something, that is, to value one thing above all others. In other words, to worship God is to recognize God’s singular and primary value for our world and our lives – and when you recognize that; well, the first thing you want to do, as The Message translation puts it, is to “shout praises to God …lifting the rafters with our hymns;” but then, to quote Craig Simonian, it’s “to humbly bow, knowing who we are against the backdrop of God’s unending goodness, love and grace.”
What we have in this psalm is no less than an ancient model for the act of worship itself, but friends, I’m here to tell you that it’s a model that still applies to the ways we worship today, even how we worship here at East Church.
You know, I realize that there are days it might not seem that way; and I know that sometimes it happens in spite of our best efforts (!), but as your pastor I can assure you that there is actually a rhyme and reason to how we do worship here; that there is a flow and direction to the order of service and how it proceeds, and because of this, we too, are moved in the directions that God would have us go – and it really does follow the model of this psalm, an act of worship that includes celebration, adoration and dedication.
Notice, for instance, that today’s psalm begins with words of celebration: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving: let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise.” And that’s what we do, isn’t it? Here at East Church, we always begin with “celebration,” singing songs of praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord, and proclaiming his goodness and love with prayer and affirmation – if we’re doing our jobs right, there’s going to be a spirit of joy and excitement that starts with the prelude and opening hymn and extends to the time we spend with the children and to the ministry of music.
But of course, there’s more to worship than just celebration; there’s also adoration, or, if you will, reverence, because worship without reverence unto the Lord risks becoming self-worship. Our worship should never fail to acknowledge that we’ve only gotten where we are by the love and grace of the Lord; that the Lord has blessed us mightily and abundantly, but often despite the many ways we’ve turned away from God. This is much of what informs our times of prayer and at least in part, what we acknowledge in the love of Jesus Christ –that though we were sinners, Christ died for us that we might always be with this God who loves us so much.
We worship a God who our “LORD, our Maker,” and yes, we are the sheep of his pasture. You know, a couple of weeks ago during the service I lifted up this image of our being as sheep, and after church, one of you pointed out to me, not unkindly, that “sheep are really dumb animals!” And yes, that’s true – I always remember something that Garrison Keillor said about the shepherds in the Christmas story, that “shepherds weren’t high class people, because sheep aren’t high class animals!” Nonetheless, it is still true that we are sheep – but not in the sense of living as dumb animals with empty heads and hearts to match; rather, spiritually, in the sense of being part of a greatly loved and cared for flock led by a good and caring shepherd, before whom we can only “worship and bow down.”
So there’s celebration in our worship; and adoration of the God who loves us – and finally, there’s “dedication,” specifically, our dedication to God. In the last few verse of Psalm 95, you’ll notice that there’s reference to a very specific event in Israel’s history, one that they’re urged not to repeat: “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah.” Don’t do it: as The Message paraphrases it, “don’t turn a deaf ear to me as in the bitter uprising …when your ancestors turned and put me to the test.”
Friends, that’s the sermon; and for better or worse, preaching in one form or another is always going to be part of worship (!) – because not only are we called in our time together to “be attentive to God’s Word,” we’re also meant to be seeking its application in our lives and living, and then to respond to it with lives renewed to faith and love.
That’s why the last thing we do at every gathering for worship is always going to be a blessing and sending forth. While our time together might draw to a close; and our attention may shift to other matters, true worship only continues after the benediction, with our response of faith and action.
Friends, after nearly 30 years in the pulpit and a lifetime spent in the church, I can tell you that some of the most beautifully clear, unalloyed moments of God’s presence that I have ever experienced have happened amidst incredible moments of word and sacrament shared in sanctuaries just like and including this one. But I’ve also found that ultimately, the best part of our worship always comes after the Benediction; in what is taken out those doors and brought to a hurting world; in divine love shared with others in need. It’s so much more than just an hour or two spent on a Sunday morning; more than “tying the cat to the bedpost” because that’s the way we’ve always done it – it’s true worship that brings us into an intimate relationship with God, a relationship that girds and informs every part of our lives.
“So let us worship and bow down,” beloved, for you and I, we were made to worship. Something to think about as we come to the Lord ’s Table today. Thanks be to God!
Selah (!), and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry